Let them eat…cake?

The rise and fall of illusion cakes

There are many trends in the cakery arts. However, nothing has awakened the world’s appetite so deliciously as the illusion cake. If the illusion cake was a personality type it would be something like this: a compulsive liar whose outsides don’t match their insides, partial to wearing mundane costumes, and hides in very plain sight. In other words, the illusion cake is the Clark Kent of baked delights.

Funnily enough, the illusion cake is true to its name. It’s simply a cake decorated to look like anything other than a cake. We see enough of them at children’s birthday parties; my sister’s first birthday cake was a giant pink bear. The 1980s “Australian Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake Book” is the fairy godmother to all illusion cakes baked today. It’s now a cult recipe book but was originally a basic collection of 106 cake recipes for parents to recreate at home. Masterpieces included the candy castle, jack in the box, rubber ducky and (heaven forbid) the echidna cake. The latter has never been successfully replicated, only brutalised by amateur bakers everywhere; reminiscent of the horrific red velvet armadillo cake in comedy-drama film Steel Magnolias (1989).

But don’t be fooled, illusion cakes have a much older history beyond the birthday party. Historically, cake has been a celebratory symbol of myth, religion, and culture. During Easter, cakes have been traditionally shaped into lambs. Bûche de Noël (yule log) has been a recurring treat during Christmastime. Out of the eclectic, over-indulgent, aristocratic courts of the 19th century came great architectural tower cakes, known as pièces montées, by the French Marie Antione Carême and later royal chef Urbain Dubois, who both baked inedible but dazzling feats in sugarloaf for the pampered milieu.

The illusion cake has experienced a renaissance. Its astronomic rise in modern digestion is a spectacle not seen before in the sugary arts. Illusion cakes have long been tv-celebrities, starring in Cake Boss and The Great British Bake Off, but in the past few years, they’ve hogged the dessert table at the great social media feast. Clogging our digital plates have been endless videos of cake-cutting reveals, a phenomenon where uncake-like objects are cut in half to reveal their layered insides.

The illusion cake is the twenty-first-century still-life.

The trend exploded during the Covid-19 pandemic; we gobbled up this game of sweet surprise during a time of overbaked lockdowns. The cake reveal movement was unproblematically vanilla and, soon enough, anything and everything was cake in disguise: a plate of breakfast, a carton of eggs, dogs and cats and human beings. Sainsbury’s picked up the cake reveal idea for its nationwide advertisement campaigns. Netflix cut its own wonky slice with the recent gameshow blandly dubbed: Is it Cake?

Illusion cakes have effectively become art. Hong Kong just held its first illusion cake exhibit. Baking academies are dedicated to teaching this hyperrealist craft. The illusion cake is the twenty-first-century still-life. But why? Trying to reason with the rise of illusion cakes is like trying to decipher what it means to be human; there are too many flavours in the batter. Although, there is something tantalising about escapism. Illusion cakes are like the baked goodies of absurdist theatre, only to be visually consumed – eye candy that heightens our serotonin and not our blood sucrose. It’s also obscenely pleasurable to watch illusions (and food) be destroyed, it feels indulgent – almost fetishistic– like participating in a gluttonous ritual.

However, surprises get old. The oversaturation of the illusion cake market has deflated its magic. Besides, most illusion cakes are skin-deep – meant to be admired, not eaten. A mouthful of sugar fondant is not tasty, and a cake disguised as an unappealing object, such as toilet paper, curbs the appetite. Nowadays, we are hungry for authenticity and imperfection. Now is the rise of the anti-cake craze, hot amongst nonconformists with a sweet tooth. (Intentionally) ugly cakes are the new chocolate. The sugary monstrosities, with slouchy tiers and drippy globules of buttercream, are the antithesis of fantasy – these messes are our reality. If the rise of the illusion cake has taught us anything, it’s that even baked goods can become avant-garde; nothing escapes the bizarre gyre of contemporary virality. But, sometimes, we don’t want higher art. Sometimes, we just want to eat cake that looks like cake.


Image credits: robives

Image Description: A close up of a strawberry cake